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Jason Morningstar “The Roach”

Posted on August 19, 2008 by jmstar

The Horror Eassay Project continues this week at Flames Rising with game designer Jason Morningstar (who just won a Diana Jones Award for Grey Ranks). For the project Jason is telling us a bit about the design process that went into The Shab Al-Hiri Roach RPG.

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is a dark comedy of manners, lampooning academia and asking players to answer a difficult question – are you willing to swallow a soul-eating telepathic insect bent on destroying human civilization?

The Shab Al-Hiri Roach

Game Chef is always a fertile ground for new games. The Game Chef contest challenges designers to build games based on specific “ingredients” in a week or two. In 2005, the ingredients were Accuser, Entomology, Wine, and Companion. A lot of fun games saw the light of day as a result of this contest – Nathan Paoletta’s carry: a game about war, Clinton R. Nixon’s City of Brass, and Paul Czege’s Bacchanal. It was my first time in the contest, and I wrote a game that pulled equally from my love for Lovecraftian horror and my everyday experience working at a University. I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

My only goal was to finish the contest with a functional game. I didn’t exactly succeed, but the first draft (and that’s all any Game Chef entry ever is) of The Shab Al-Hiri Roach was playable – barely.

It wasn’t tested and it wasn’t refined, but it worked well enough that a group with no connection to me played and enjoyed it. Their experience was a powerful motivator for me, a real epiphany, and I set out to refine the design and publish it post-contest.

The Roach was published about a year later and has enjoyed small press success (about 750 copies sold to date). Between the Game Chef draft and holding the perfect-bound book in my hands were months of playtesting, editing, and layout. Two friends and I formed a company, Bully Pulpit Games, to usher it into print. It’s a game that was definitely au currant for the 2004-2005 Forge crowd – stake-setting is front and center, it is GM-less, and it has a tight thematic focus.

This is more accident than intention, but that’s how it turned out.

The game takes place on the campus of a tweedy New England University in 1919 (a year I chose so that I could easily acquire public domain art to illustrate it – and to tie in with the whole Lovecraft thing, I suppose). There’s a professor who has brought back a new species of roach from the Levant – present-day Anbar province in Iraq. It’s weird and remarkable; it escapes, and soon all manner of hijinx begins. Professor Appleby-Jenkins has awakened a telepathic Sumerian God-King in the twentieth century, and it’s going to stretch its oily legs and kick some ass.

You’ve got the classic tropes of paranoid horror – a faceless, mind-controlling force that is multiplying exponentially, a hierarchical organization into which the monster fits perfectly, and a few foolish, helpless people in the know. If you played it straight, that’s all you’d have, and Call of Cthulhu does a pretty good job handling that. I wanted something different. The linch-pin was the academic setting – I have a pretty good feel for University politics, and I realized that there was the potential for great hilarity in what Ken Hite calls “the wainscot game”, with the unnatural truth hidden behind the walls. I was also excited by the potential of humor through juxtaposition – the most banal and pointless academic squabbling on one side, and world-consuming black horror on the other.

I engineered this by focusing the game on the fall semester – the faculty senate meeting, the homecoming football game – but requiring heinous, bizarre things of characters enslaved by the Roach and its offspring, who are running around behaving like they are in ancient Babylon. These two themes collide and combine, and it isn’t unusual for the nasty side of University politics to be far worse than anything The Roach demands of its slaves.

The game is flexible enough for players to indulge in a very subtle, truly horrible wainscot game, but nobody does that – at least their first time out. Given almost unlimited authority over their own scenes, players typically turn the game up to eleven and go absolutely crazy. The events of the fall semester become talking points in a narrative of depravity, violence, and moral turpitude. It’s pretty
fun, but also a little troubling. Sometimes it seems like the game serves as a dark, cathartic mirror. People do some messed up things, but they almost always have a great time doing them.

I learned a lot from The Roach. Perhaps the biggest design take-away for me is the notion that you can incorporate elements of game play that are completely deterministic and still have a great time. In The Roach you have no control over whether or not you’ll be enslaved – it just happens. I thought this would be problematic, but once I abandoned the premise that everything needed to be carefully balanced, it all fell into place. The cruel determinism just reinforces the game’s theme. Sometimes you are just screwed. For a dark, dark game, it’s all part of the absurdity and mayhem. Similarly, there are recurring NPCs and fixed scenes, and this works brilliantly on two levels. First, it provides a consistent framework that players can rally around, and second, it provides a shared story that different groups have in common – if you meet someone who has played The Roach, you can always ask them what happened to Regina Sutton, and they will have a gruesome reply.

Another thing I learned is that people like competition a little too much sometimes. There’s a competitive element to The Roach which informs play and focuses the action wonderfully, but it is a polite fiction. You can “win” the game, but as I say in the rules, it’s like winning a mustard gas barrage. People who play to win get confused, then they get mad, and then they lose. Were I to revise the game, I’d spend some time thinking about the competitive economy and how to make
it have more mechanical weight. I think it could be improved.

I’m very proud of The Shab Al-Hiri Roach and its approach to horror gaming. I’m always gratified when I hear about people playing and enjoying it.

– Jason Morningstar

Look for The Shab Al-Hiri Roach and other Bully Pulpit Games products at Indie Press Revolution.

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